In 2010, archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantiv discovered a bone box while excavating the Sveti Ivan (St. John) church on an island in Bulgaria. Found alongside ancient Greek inscriptions mentioning John the Baptist, the box contained six human bones that have been considered possible relics of the Saint. New research, published on June 15, 2012 by Oxford University,* examines evidence from the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit to indicate that the bones do, in fact, date to the first century C.E. Moreover, additional research conducted at the University of Copenhagen indicates that the bones are from the same individual, and the DNA (mtDNA haplotype) suggests he was likely a male from the Middle East. Oxford and Copenhagen researchers have explicitly stated that there is no definitive connection to John the Baptist; however, they were surprised to see the antiquity of bones that historical records associate with the Baptist.
Biblical and historical accounts say that John the Baptist, who is referenced as a relative of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and a leading prophet who baptized Jesus, was beheaded by Herod Antipas, likely at the Jordanian citadel Machaerus. The discovery of an ancient Greek inscription on a tuff box referencing John the Baptist and asking God to “help your servant Thomas” led Bulgarian researchers to believe that the relics arrived in Bulgaria from Antioch, where some of the Baptist’s bones were held until the tenth century C.E. The waterproof tuff box, likely carried by this “Thomas,” likely originated in eastern Turkey.
Oxford University’s Georges Kazan explored historical documents for a different account of how the relics may have reached the Sveti Ivan church. According to Kazan, in the fourth century C.E., monks took relics of John the Baptist’s from Jerusalem to Constantinople. In the Oxford report (see link below), Dr. Kazan states “’My research suggests that during the fifth or early sixth century, the monastery of Sveti Ivan may well have received a significant portion of St John the Baptist’s relics, as well as a prestige reliquary in the shape of a sarcophagus, from a member of Constantinople’s elite. This gift could have been to dedicate or rededicate the church and the monastery to St John, which the patron or patrons may have supported financially.”
The confirmed date of a knucklebone is far from final proof that the Bulgarian bones belonged to John the Baptist. A conclusive association between supposed relics and their Saint is impossible to establish; however, the research conducted by Oxford’s Tom Higham and Christopher Ramsey does prove that the “relics” have a better case for authenticity than previously imagined.
* Read more from Oxford University.
John the Baptist was beheaded at Machaerus, a Herodian fortress east of the Jordan River. Read the free Bible History Daily feature “Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist,” featuring BHD exclusive color reconstructions of the site, or read Győző Vörös’s full article “Machaerus: Where Salome Danced and John the Baptist Was Beheaded” as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2012.
For a recent discussion of relics, see Hershel Shanks’s first person “Relics vs. ‘Real’ Archaeology” as it appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.